May 27, 1998
Arctic social science researchers debate ethics
Should some aboriginal knowledge be kept secret? That's just one difficult ethical issue facing Arctic social scientists who met last week in Copenhagen.
COPENHAGEN - For Sami anthropologist Marit Myrvall ethical issues surrounding research are never easy to resolve.
"But I now think that we have to debate these challenges and not leave them to the individual," said Myrvall.
Myrvall, who heads the Sami Institute in Guovvdageaidnu, Norway did her own field research in India with Tibetan refugees. There, she was able to evaluate her research methods from the other side, as a stranger working in a foreign culture.
This experience is helping her now as she begins research within her own Sami community on new Sami shamanism.
"As a researcher I represent the scientific tradition of knowledge and my professional tools are not much different from other researchers," she said.
"When researchers belonging to the indigenous community begin to produce knowledge about their own culture and traditions, knowing that certain kind of knowledge is not supposed to be of access to all, how do we do research on that? Where do we draw the line? Or do we?"
A recent international gathering of social scientists, many of whom are Sami, Greenlandic or from Russian and Alaskan native communities, unanimously adopted a set of principles and guidelines for circumpolar research.
The new principles of the International Association of Arctic Social Scientists include some self-evident and basic philosophical principles.
These include respect for people and information, and maintaining the equality of power and the practice of freedom with equality.
"Adherence to these principles provides the foundation and the threshold from which the inherent sense of beauty, grace and harmony, wholeness of the land, animals and people may emerge," reads the organization's statement.
A set of 10 working guidelines were also adopted. These talk about such issues as the importance of obtaining informed consent, and maintaining constant consultation and communication with any people involved in research.
Myrvall said that every researcher will have the responsibility to act according to these principles. But this doesn't mean they shouldn't act primarily on their on their own sense of what's right.
"First, you have to act and the standard will grow out of it. Like when you smile and then you feel better," she said.
She offered the example of a researcher working on Sami rock burials who carefully reburied any objects she found and did not divulge their location.
Yet even if researchers appeared to support a stronger ethical approach to research practices, the debate around the role of traditional knowledge and its role in research is far from over.
The statement adopted by IASSA also said that "efforts should be made to incorporate local and traditional knowledge and experience" into research.
But even if many researchers are, in fact, increasingly studying traditional knowledge and incorporating it into their work, many raised the possible misundestanding or exploiting of this knowledge.
Nunavut Arctic College student Susan Enuaraq wasn't sure she like the idea of freely sharing traditional knowledge.
"For a person like me who's seen people capitalizing on Inuit knowledge and culture, it's very hurtful," she told the IASSA gathering.
But other researchers said that traditional knowledge is no different >from any other kind of knowledge.
"Every piece of knowledge is about sharing," said Russian anthropologist Igor Krupnik. "It's not created to be shut up and locked. The Yupik elders say that 'when you're stingy with your sharing your knowledge, it rots your mouth.'"
Krupnik said that he's tired of having scientific knowledge and researchers being portrayed as dangerous.
He said science and scientists have compatible ethical standards and even their own kind of "elders" who help prevent the flow of incorrect or destructive information.
IASSA intends to continue discussion around these issues before the organization meets again in 2001 at the Groupe d'etudes inuit and circumpolaires at Laval University in Quebec City.